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Douro Valley, Portugal






We dipped down into Portugal’s Douro Valley on a late December afternoon, after driving over from Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I was wide eyed, anticipating the ribbons of green and clusters of white stucco quintas with terra-cotta tiled roofs that would let me know I was in port wine country. I could taste the “tawny” just thinking about it. I love a good landscape. I love port.

We followed the river to the small town of Pinhão and its Vintage House Hotel, the perfect spot to explore from. The friendly staff got us comfortably situated by a large stone fireplace upon arrival, and a glass of white port (a first for me) almost magically appeared in our hands. Our sons scoped out the hotel and found a game room (billiards anyone?) and then located a patch of grass on which to kick the ball around and play our daily family soccer games. Later I watched the boys play from the balcony off our room. I could see them bouncing along a rectangle lawn bordered by pristine rows of palm trees, a swimming pool, the slow-flowing Douro River, a few colorful rabelos tied up to a large dock and vineyard laced hillsides rising up all around.

December in Portugal can be rainy. I was prepared for that; I was not prepared for intense, sunny mornings playfully revealing themselves through a thick blanket of fog. I was mesmerized. We drove up to São João da Pesqueira. I peered out the car window at an ever changing landscape. One moment I could see a little village, then the river, then nothing. It was like a game of “now you see it, now you don’t”, watching the fog roll over the Douro Valley until finally, the fog lifted and vanished.

Just outside São João da Pesqueira, under a canopy of mossy trees, we climbed large stepping stones up a narrow trail to reach Chapel of São Salvador do Mundo. The stones were etched in moss too and lined with smaller stones and tall grasses. There was an old farmhouse nearby and an overgrown garden with exotic hot pink flowers glowing in the sun. Once on top of the chapel grounds, we could take in all 360 degrees of the mountains and valley below. No doubt about it, this is one of the most enchanting places I have ever been.

Douro River cruises are popular here, and Pinhão is a favorite place to launch, but we chose the quiet, independent experience of tootling around the river in kayaks. Arranging kayak rental was easy at our hotel: We simply selected a time, walked down the steps to the dock and slipped in.

There are many great port wine estates to visit and everyone has their favorites. I had my heart set on two: Quinta Nova and Quinta do Seixo. Sadly, Quinta Nova was closed the day we wanted to visit. But never mind ~ we enjoyed a lovely, leisurely afternoon at Quinto do Seixo sipping port and gazing through walls of glass with knockout views. Our boys were treated to fresh fruit juice and cheese plates and everyone had a good time. Afterward, we went for a walk.

In the evening we visited Rui Paula’s Restaurant DOC in Folgosa. Earlier in the day I mentioned to the hotel manager that I’d made a dinner reservation at DOC and asked him if it was a good choice. He said, “Well, Rui Paula is one the most innovative and best chefs in all of Portugal. So, I am sure you will have a very nice evening.” That we did. We were handled like royalty by the waitstaff, seated at a round table in the pool of a warm dome light. We tried just about everything recommended to us and it was delicious.

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